Just days left to change the Immigration Bill

Posted on March 15, 2014

6158254528_cf567fbf3e_zThe Immigration Bill is now nearing the end of its’ swift journey through parliament and will become law before the European elections in May, just months after being unveiled. The reason for this breakneck speed is, of course, so that Tories can try to win a few grubby votes off UKIP by showing how tough (ie. hostile) they are towards all these ghastly immigrants coming over here and contributing to our economy.

Only last week David Cameron suppressed a report which proved that immigrants don’t prevent British workers from getting a job. Civil servants in Theresa May’s own department found that the figures she’d been repeatedly quoting, about the impact of new arrivals, were bunkum. A little embarrassing for the Home Secretary, perhaps, but essentially it was good news likely to reassure voters anxious about immigration. Yet this news was kept hidden until BBC Newsnight winkled it out.

That’s just the latest in a string of examples where ministers have been waving around studies which paints the impact of new arrivals in the most unfavourable terms – for example the economic benefits to Britain – while kicking more credible sources like the OECD under the table which show that even after you deduct take-up of services and benefits there is still a net benefit to the British economy of over £16 billion every single year. And rising.

It’s the same with health tourism. Absolutely minuscule in reality but souped-up out of all proportion by ministers led by Mrs ‘Hostile Environment’ herself. I blogged about her squalid Immigration Bill last October arguing that the curtailing of human rights demeaned us all. Since the Bill was announced the Labour Party have fled the playground with Ed Miliband hiding behind a wall, terrified of being seen as pro-immigrant. Such is the depressing state of debate around this issue these days.

Labour’s cowardice has sadly guaranteed there has been very little opposition to the Immigration Bill from any side of the house. Even in the Lords there has been little appetite for going to war with the government. Fox-hunting or Lords reform this is not. A few peers are fighting the good fight. Honourable mentions, however, go to B.Hamwee, L.Roberts and L.Avebury (all Lib Dem) and B.Lister, B.Kennedy and L.Pannick (all Labour). But the voices of conscience are echoing around a chamber that is morally hollow on rights for immigrants and asylum seekers.

Vince Cable is, to his credit, leading the charge to show that the scapegoating and demonisation of immigrants does not make any sense once the light of facts about immigration are shone on the debate. On the backbenches Sarah Teather (Lib Dem) and Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) remain outspoken about the Immigration Bill, but all around them their Commons colleagues whistle and look at their shoes.

Last weekend, at the Lib Dem’s spring conference, I challenged the Home Office minister Norman Baker at a Q&A just minutes after grassroots members almost unanimously approved a progressive policy on immigration. How, I asked Baker, are you going to reconcile the positive spirit of our party’s new policy with the pernicious and punitive Immigration Bill which your department is pushing through? An uncomfortable looking minister mumbled something about the Bill “not being that bad.” It was a line I’d heard before, at a private meeting with him a few weeks back, and sounded no better now than it did then.

The Bill stinks. Earlier today I attended a Movement Against Xenophobia conference where Teather described the Bill as “barking mad” and said all three main parties were on a “race to the bottom”. She added: “We are seeing a raft of mad and bad policies that will have a severe impact on the most vulnerable people and create an atmosphere of hostility towards immigrants, where we become suspicious of our neighbours.” She is right, however I suspect that was the whole point of the Bill. May said she wanted to create a ‘hostile environment’ and that’s what they’re doing.

The Bill itself is a gruesome witches brew of completely different anti-immigrant policies all thrown into the same pot and cooked together. We have new stop and search powers (clause 2) that will make immigration officers more powerful than the police with greater ability to stop someone simply because they don’t believe they look British. They will also get powers to conduct mouth searches. Just in case someone is hiding their passport and immigration papers there, perhaps…?

Officials, who were known as UKBA until recently, will also be able to raid the homes and workplaces of anyone ‘connected to’ a someone suspected of having irregular immigration status. So just because you were born in the UK doesn’t mean you won’t have the immigration squad kicking your door down at three in the morning. They will also get sweeping new powers to exert “reasonable force”, not just on any grounds listed in any immigration law currently on the statute book but any future law. Anyone thinking the police were going to be the face of any ‘police state’ may have been looking in the wrong direction. It is immigration officials who could be acting like they’re protecting a Fijian military junta.

The Bill will also bring in new biometric data capture, including iris scans, just four years after this government scrapped Labour plans for a national ID card which proposed pretty much the same thing.  Authorities will also be able to retain such data for all time, rather than having to destroy it after 10 years, and are free to pass this to the police. As a result all immigrants, even if they were later granted British citizenship, could be held on databases for the rest of their lives – including on the police national computer along with criminals – even if they have never committed a crime.

Part 3 of the Bill increases fines for landlords and employers if they give a roof or a job to anyone who’s status is irregular. There is already much evidence that landlords regularly discriminate against Black would-be tenants and it is highly likely that this measure would make things much worse. The problem is that landlords are ill-equipped to understand the hugely complicated system comprised of dozens of different immigration statuses. Some immigration lawyers can barely understand it. And there is already anecdotal evidence that some landlords are asking for a £3,000 “fine” upfront on top of the deposit for tenants who may well be legitimate. 

Likewise, Doctors of the World (DoW) have already reported GP’s turning away immigrants and asylum seekers even though, contrary to press reports, the Bill does not include doctors surgeries. The ‘health levy’ is another aspect of the Bill, made up of a compulsory annual fee of up to £200 paid upfront before a visa is granted. If the visa is three years that’s £600, please. With virtually no evidence of ‘health tourism’ this is yet another measure to act as a deterrent to those from poorer countries.

Although emergency care in A&E is available to all many immigrants who face serious illness will worry about the assessment of hospital doctors as to whether it was indeed an emergency. Studies already show that immigrant women are less likely to seek pre and post natal care, and the risk factors for stillbirths and the deaths of women giving birth are bound to increase. 

And on marriage, anyone getting married to someone who is not a British or EU citizen must notify the Home Secretary of their intentions at least 28 days before the big day and hope that when Mrs May is asked: “Do you, Theresa Mary May, consent to this marriage?”, she replies: “I do.” There is, thankfully, a silver lining to this; she is keeping the right to marry in an immigration detention centre.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough the Government are stripping away most appeal rights for all but asylum cases (clause 11). And even then under clause 12 they can deport someone and tell them they can appeal only the decision in the country they have been returned to. The good news is if someone disagrees with the Home Office they can now pay the Government up to £200 for the same department to look at the decision again. This extra cash will no doubt help employ officials using ‘reasonable force’ to remove the person paying the money.

The implicit message underpinning this Bill is that the Government so hates immigrants that they are willing to make a bonfire of civil and human rights and usher in a police state replete with bovver-booted UKBA thugs and ID databases.

After all this bad news you might be relieved to hear that the Bill actually has an anti-discrimination clause (28). The problem is this clause actually weakens equalities legislation by preventing an immigrant from taking civil action against landlords for racial discrimination, and it even protects the Home Office from legal action in the same way.

You can do something about this. As policy officer for Voice 4 Change England, I have set up a lobbying page so that anyone can send a lobbying email to selected members of the House of Lords in just a few seconds. It automatically generates peers and has a model text all ready to send with the click of a button.

You don’t have long to do it, though. The final two days for the Lords Committee Stage is this Monday (17th) and Wednesday (19th). There will then be a report stage on 1st and 3rd April. And that’s it. There’s just a few days to say “no” to the ‘hostile environment’ the Government want to create. I urge you to visit the lobbying page and make a difference.

By Lester Holloway

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